Academic Sources: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Are Academic Sources?
  • 1:12 Identifying Scholarly Sources
  • 2:24 Is It a Scholarly Source?
  • 5:15 Choosing an Academic Source
  • 6:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Firestone
Find out what academic sources are and what to look for if you're required to use them for research papers and essays. Complete the lesson, and take a quiz to test your new knowledge.

What Are Academic Sources?

Imagine that your teacher wants you to write a paper on a topic you know nothing about. Where do you start? With research, of course! You learn everything you can about the topic from books and websites that you can trust to give you accurate info. The places that provide information about a topic are called sources.

Careful, though, because not all sources are created equal. Some can be mistaken or incorrect and not have had an editor correct the problems. Some might be under-researched and rely on guessing to fill in the gaps. Some might even give you incorrect information as a joke.

So what kinds of sources can you trust when you're writing your paper? Well, a good place to start is with academic sources, also called scholarly sources. These sources can include books, academic journal articles, and published expert reports. Whatever the exact form, academic sources all have in common the fact that they are peer-reviewed. Peer reviewed sources are written by an expert in the field and have passed review by other experts who judged the source for quality and accuracy. If a source is peer-reviewed, you know it's a good choice for high-quality, accurate information about your topic.

Identifying Scholarly Sources

Not all sources will tell you whether or not they're scholarly or peer-reviewed, but there are some clues you can look for. To start, look at the author's credentials. The author should be an expert in the field they're writing about; they should have an advanced degree or an affiliation with a scholarly organization like a university or a science foundation. If these are missing, then it isn't an academic source.

Look as well for a list of references or a bibliography. Most high-quality research is based on other research, so a good source will have a list of works the author studied as he or she was writing it. Check in the back of the book to make sure.

Finally, you can tell a lot about a source by looking at the publisher who publishes it. Scholarly sources should be published by a professional association like the American Medical Association; by a university, for example the Oxford University Press; or by a recognized academic publisher. These publishers will all peer-review the books that they publish. Ask your teacher if you're not sure about whether a publisher is a recognized academic one. If the publisher is a university press or a professional organization, you've got a scholarly source!

Is It a Scholarly Source?

Now, let's practice looking at sources and deciding whether they're academic. We need a topic for our imaginary research paper; let's pretend we're writing a paper on Tyrannosaurus Rex. Now, where do we start looking for sources?

Your first instinct might be to visit T-Rex's page on Wikipedia, but be careful. Is Wikipedia scholarly? Let's look at our criteria again:

  • Scholarly sources should be peer reviewed
  • They should include a list of references
  • They should be written by an expert author
  • They should be published by a reputable publisher

Well, there's no publisher for Wikipedia, so it doesn't pass that test. Because there's no identified author, we can't be sure that the writer of any info was an expert. Sometimes there's a list of references, but we can't count on it for the article on Tyrannosaurus Rex. It's peer reviewed, kind of… but the people reviewing it aren't necessarily experts in their field, so it doesn't count. Take all these together, and it turns out Wikipedia is not an academic source. That means we have to look other places.

So, after a visit to the library, we find a few sources: a book called A History of Dinosaurs by Dr. John Smith, an article called 'The Tyrannosaurus and Its Enemies' by Mrs. Louise Buckingham, and another book: Oh No, It's a T-Rex! by Greg Simon.

Let's start with A History of Dinosaurs. If we look at the about the author page, we see that Dr. John Smith has a Ph.D in archaeology; that's an excellent author credential. If we turn to the back, we see a bibliography that lists articles from scholarly journals and books from major publishers. The author is a certified expert in his field, we have a long bibliography… this is definitely an academic source. We can use it with confidence!

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